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FULL recognition must be given to the women of Jugoslavia, for their part in the struggle for freedom was equally as great as that of their men. They were an indispensable part of the Freedom Movement, and without them, the men readily admitted, this movement could not have existed.
For too long had they been dependent on their men in the struggle for freedom. Conditions for many years had not made for happiness and security in the home, as thousands upon thousands of the men were obliged to go abroad and separate from their families for ten and even twenty years, and then to return with their savings; they came back as strangers to children already grown, to wives whom they could scarcely recognise.
When the enemy marched within their gates they realised the threat. They saw and they endured his cruelty and hideous atrocities for as long as they could, and daily the threat loomed more horrible; not only would they lose what was left of a humble home, but more vital still the spirit which would liberate them would be suppressed for ever by the brutal slaughter of their menfolk. They knew that they must break from home, that they must go into battle themselves, that the horror and hardship would be infinitely preferable to the treatment they must expect if they remained in their homes. A passive acceptance and complacency would mean the violation of all that life had to offer, and they would be unworthy of the love and respect of those who were prepared to give all so that their country might be free.
And so they threw themselves into the struggle and did whatever they could to help. Thousands of women, used to the tranquility of home and office, accompanied their men, or went alone to the woods. The younger and more daring took rifles, found their places in the ranks and fought on the field of battle. With equal spirit, others did administrative work of every description, and thousands more, who equally risked their lives, worked ceaselessly on their farms to supply their menfolk who were stationed in the hills about them with food and clothing.
It was not an easy decision for a woman to have to make. She was quite well aware, if she were married, that it would be impossible always to be with her husband and that there was a possibility that they would be separated for the duration of the war. The unmarried woman likewise knew the dangers of Partisan life in the hills, and in [io less a degree did she understand the criticism she would receive from older people, who, while appreciating the necessity for courageous action, were loath to see their young vromanhood throwing all convention aside.
Yet the woman from the city, no less than the woman from the farm, adjusted herself to the new conditions and accepted exposure, discomfort and hardship of every description; too much was at stake to consider convention; victory, ultimate freedom would justify her action. She dared to be free.
This determined resolve and courage, very early in the war, over-came the natural resentment in men's minds at the sight of their women fighting. Though they found it hard to accept the situation, they were given no alternative, and their hearts were proud to see such quality in their women.
We shall long remember the look of a man's face when, to his complete astonishment, he encountered his wife and daughter from whom he had been separated for several months on a snow-laden trail. His wife was cooking for a Partisan detachment at a lonely spot where they had been stationed for some weeks. And the girl, about twenty years old, was serving with a patrol of ten men whose task it was to watch the enemy in their area and to guard all approaches to that particular hill. She carried a rifle, and because of the respect which the men had for her courage, they had made her their patrol leader. They told us she was an excellent scout and knew the woods so well that she could take them anywhere on the blackest night. Time was pressing and we only had a few minutes to see them together, but it was an unforgettable experience to share the father's delight.
Need it be said that the men of Jugoslavia were proud, when seven per cent of the forces throughout the nation and as high as fourteen per cent in Slovenia were women.
It was a strange yet most impressive sight when girls of eighteen and twenty went into battle with men; but, strange as it seemed at first, it became a natural thing to accept, as one saw the men and women of Jugoslavia living together in perfect equality, with the highest respect and regard for each other, which their exceptional independence seemed to inspire.
During an attack on an important town, which lasted for several days, we saw a number of young women go into action. Some of them had rifles slung across their shoulders, a few bore stretchers, and others carried first-aid kit. They were scattered throughout the ranks among the men, beautiful, healthy, strong girls, both dark and fair. They wore ski trousers and woollen shirts, with kerchiefs, and they might have been going on an outing; the reality seemed fantastic.
During a long march the girls carried their own kit. It was a hard and fast rule among them that they must always do this. Any offer of assistance was invariably and politely declined with "Hvala lepo, ja sam Partisanka" (Thank you very much, 1 am a Partisan). When, in pitch darkness, we came to a wide and rushing river, which we had to ford, the girls rolled up their trousers, or took them off, and waded across with a hand upon the shoulder of the man in front. This was the usual method of crossing streams it seemed to support as well as guide each one in the dark. The girls persisted in laughing whenever they lost balance on the way across, quite indifferent to the efiorts of the men who tried to impress on them the fact that the enemy was less than two hundred yards on either side of us!
We saw them frequently during the four days of that battle. Two of them were with the first men to reach the initial objective. Their courage was equal to that of the men, and they were equally as eager to get at the enemy; they were remarkably cool and steady. Others bandaged the wounded and got them away to the dressing station. It seemed characteristic of all of them that they were never without full water-bottles and pieces of dry bread to pass out to the men. There was no glamour about those girls they were engaged in doing a hard task, and they did it well.
It was the lot of some of these girls to fall in battle. A few were killed, others were wounded. We talked to the wounded, and if ever courage and character were to be seen, we saw it then. They were magnificent.
Months later we were walking along a road when we met one of these young women, hurrying along on a bicycle, her rifle across her back. She stopped for a few words with us. There was a tilt to her chin and she was as bright as ever, though quite disfigured by the deep mark of a bullet from mouth to ear.
Time and again women proved themselves possessed of most excellent fighting qualities; their strength and endurance and tenacity amazed everyone, and their absolute fearlessness and uncompromising manner endeared them to all men, to whom they were indeed.an inspiration. They were friends to all, favourites to none, and when on the march they would constantly change positions along the columns; on reaching a village they would scout for food and drink for the men. During stops en route, when everyone was wet with sweat and ready to flop down anywhere, those girls vrould chance along with their merry smiles and cheering words, usually with the refreshing surprise of a cigarette end or a sip of water or wine. And so the spirits of everyone would be revived until our destination was reached.
The men fully recognised the qualities of leadership so often evident in their women; women commanded some Partisan battalions, and it has been said that even a brigade was commanded by a woman, though this fact has not been established.
At all headquarters and administrative branches, in fact in every department of the Freedom Front Movement, woroen were to be found in executive posts, and as assistants, secretaries, interpreters and in countless other capacities, many of them having become fully qualified in civihan life for such work. There were lawyers, doctors and teachers among them. These administrative workers wore ski trousers, with belt and revolver, and lived in camps or billets with the men, working long hours and very often at high pressure in conditions which were seldom comfortable. They maintained the high standard of efficiency which characterised the organisation of the Freedom Front.
In the warm weather it was a refreshing sight as one approached a headquarters in the woods to come upon the girls working in pairs, or with their chief, seated on a fallen tree, with notebook or type-writer resting on a moss-covered stump and dappled with sunlight. Frequently a small village would be taken over by a whole section or administrative branch, which compiled and published records, instructions and educational matter.
To single out any one woman would be an injustice to all, yet a few must be mentioned in order to give the reader some idea of the qualities possessed by all.
Vida was secretary of the Communist Party of Slovenia, the widow of the national hero, Tomsic, herself a lawyer by profession. She was captured and interned in Italy, and there she became the friend of two Englishwomen, who taught her to speak the language. Italy capitulated and she escaped, and succeeded in reaching Jugoslavia on a fishing smack; having managed to get through the German coastal defences, she joined her friends again in Slovenia.
The names of Slavka, Toncka, Olga, Ancka, Tida, Mila, Marija might be multiplied by hundreds: they saw the Freedom Movement develop from its inception until it became the nation-wide united force which finally liberated their country. Their names, with all others, will ever live in the annals of Jugoslavia.
Women doctors, nurses and sisters from the convents joined the hospitals in the woods. From many we heard accounts of their escape from occupied cities, and many had brought with them all the hospital supplies they could safely carry. The risk which doctors and nurses took by serving with the Partisans was very great. Hospitals were more or less immobile, and although great care was taken to conceal them, it happened occasionally that the enemy would find one, and then there was never any mercy shown either to staff or patients; they were invariably killed and the buildings burned. In April, 1944, 200 Germans discovered one of the Partisan hospitals in Croatia; thirty-four patients, eight doctors and a maternity attendant were put to death.
Another vital side of Partisan life was taken over by women: they organised laundries, bakeries and cookhouses, and would follow the men to lonely posts and uninhabited areas where there were no local village women to look after them. The hardship of rain and snow and bitter cold did not deter them; the health of the men was their chief thought. Long journeys through the woods when pursued by the enemy, and the difficulties of obtaining sufficient food for the next meal were all too common experiences.
From the best theatres in the country artists and musicians organ-ised themselves into troupes and gave performances in village halls, and also toured the woods on foot, giving concerts wherever they found Partisans encamped. Needless to add, their efforts were enor-mously appreciated, and their songs have made them famous.
Women teachers and writers opened schools in liberated areas schools which had been closed for months, or even years and if the old school had been destroyed, a vacant house was taken over instead.
The available teachers were not sufficient for all villages and towns, and so they worked long hours and moved from place to place, teaching as they went. The enemy had outlawed the teaching of Slovenian in parts of Slovenia, but as soon as such areas became free the teachers would carry on instruction in their own tongue. Cultural groups were organised in many centres throughout Jugoslavia, and teachers' congresses would meet to plan the educational welfare of the country. Many teachers have lived to tell of the hideous atroci-ties committed by the enemy against their young pupils; they themselves suffered indescribable torture, and frequently death. During the German offensive of November, 1943, the young bride (a writer), who was with her husband at the dance in the woods, described else-where in this book, was captured and her right hand cut off with an axe; she was then sent to prison in Ljubljana, where she died shortly afterwards.
Many young girls acted as couriers and were often to be seen on lonely trails, while older girls would accompany patrols in their search for the enemy. We have often been guided by a girl on our journeys.
Women delegates, representatives and Freedom Front workers journey through occupied areas, made contact with local committees, and obtained first-hand knowledge of conditions in areas either wholly or partially occupied by the enemy. They always ran the risk of capture and certain death, and their only hope was that they should not be tortured beforehand. They represented all political parties, went together as a team to encourage support for the Freedom Front, and were called "activists."
In all occupied areas the women were the background of the underground organisations; they learned much about the enemy and were frequently able to send word to the Partisans about impending operations. They kept certain local merchants well supplied with essentials which the Partisans required, so that when farmers came to town they could fill their carts with them; these goods they generally purchased from enemy sources. To conceive the scale on which this was done would baffle imagination!
Women worked with local committees in social and Red Cross organisations, home production, cultural and other activities. Hundreds upon hundreds of girls in their 'teens worked in the fields and on farms all over liberated territory; they carried their own implements with them from place to place and worked from dawn to dark. In many areas of Jugoslavia the women were almost entirely responsible for the farming. After working in the fields all day they would, perhaps once a week, assemble just before nightfall with their packs containing food, washing and whatever could be spared from the home, and during the hours of darkness visit their menfolk at their outposts. The women in the villages made it possible for their men to take up arms, and they were proud in their ceaseless toil to be able to maintain them in active defence against the enemy.
Countless women and girls had been herded together and carried to enemy countries to internment and labour camps. From Slovenia alone it was estimated that at least forty thousand were transported to Italy and Germany; thousands will never return.
Many women, including the wives of known Partisans and workers in the Freedom Front Movement, were shot as hostages, while others were held as a threat over the heads of their husbands, to be condemned to the same fate should the Partisans become too active in their attacks against the railways.
Scores of women nursed, taught and generally looked after the welfare of thousands of orphaned children. We have visited homes where two and three hundred children were being cared for and trained. Among them, some even the smallest had known such horrible things that they had long ceased to remember a name. All efforts to identify and locate their parents had so far failed.
It was almost a daily experience to meet women and girls arriving for the first time from homes in cities and towns and villages which were still in enemy hands. Despite all they had heard of life in free territory, they could not conceal their amazement at what they saw on arrival at camp or billet. They knew that thousands of their countrymen were actively fighting, and they had heard almost incredible tales of their success in driving the occupier out of large areas of their country; they had heard of villages and towns so well known to them being added in quick succession to the already long list of free areas. They rejoiced in the hope of seeing the destruction of the ruthless invader and their country become secure in the freedom they had so long cherished in mi'nd. Little had they realised how all this was being accomplished. They arrived. They saw troops in uniform, disciplined and well armed. Huts to sleep in. Transport moving about freely and safely, schools and churches open. Concerts and organised entertainment. Excitement gripped them.
During the year we spent among those remarkable people we saw many unforgettable things; in fact, experiences followed each other so quickly that it was quite impossible to digest immediately the full significance of them. But that fact was ever a characteristic of freedom. A full, untrammelled expression of life has no limitations, and in that sense is life continually renewed.
It was an interesting study to watch the transformation of the city woman as she settled into her new way of life. She might be a most cultured woman, who had lived always in luxury, with maid- and men-servants to wait on her; she might be the wife or daughter of a professional man, or ex-Government minister or wealthy merchant, and who only knew the beautifully wooded hills of Jugoslavia as the home of fox and deer and as a paradise for winter sports.
For the first few days, still wearing her skirt, she would be excited and happy at meeting old friends and hearing of others who were believed to be still alive. Life was a holiday and an adventure. She asked questions, discussed everything that went on and saw the others hard at work. It was not long before she felt the urge to do something herself, and, remarkable as it might seem, she usually began in the kitchen! One woman, the wife of a prominent lawyer, had been in the camp for a few days when we saw her collecting loads of fire-wood, and later struggling with an axe and helping an older Partisan with a crosscut saw. And the wife of a very well-known artist made herself responsible for cleaning the kitchen, and eventually took over the full duties of that department for several hours each day, taking her turn at getting up at half-past five in the morning, building the fire and having breakfast ready by seven o'clock. They would all wash-up, sweep the messroom and set the table, obviously strange to it all, yet with a willing spirit and a sense of humour.
And so, in a very short time, the new arrival would be seen wearing a woollen shirt and heavy alpine boots in place of her fine shoes. And not very long afterwards the knowing Intendant (Quarter-master) would tactfully send a Partisanka (Partisan girl) with tape measure and a sample of blue cloth the material the girls favoured for their ski trousers to ask how she was getting on, and was there anything she required? The discomfort of a skirt had by that time been felt, and the tailor departed with an order for ski trousers. And within a few weeks she had become thoroughly acclimatised and itcquired a completely new appreciation of life. The possession of a belt and pistol set the seal on her pride and satisfaction in being a Partisana.
The men of Jugoslavia love and respect their women. And who could contradict their unanimous tribute: " Without our women, the Freedom Front could never have been possible"
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